Reviewed by Judy Richter
Oct 12, the day that the touring production of "The Color Purple" opened at the Orpheum Theatre, was Alice Walker Day in San Francisco. During the curtain call, one of the co-producers, Scott Sanders, introduced the San Francisco writer, who then received a proclamation of the day from a representative of Mayor Gavin Newsom. It was a fitting way to honor the writer and the occasion.
Published as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1982, then made into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985, "The Color Purple" premiered as a musical on Broadway in 2005. One memorable aspect of the movie, which starred Whoopi Goldberg as the central character, Celie, is that it first brought Oprah Winfrey into the spotlight for her performance as Sofia.Winfrey's subsequent rise to superstardom is well known, and she was instrumental in bringing "The Color Purple" to the stage as one of its producers.
Despite this background, the musical doesn't quite match up. In covering Celie's 30-year transition from passive, abused teenager to self-reliant businesswoman, Marsha Norman's book gives short shrift to the development of some characters and can be sketchy in providing essential plot information, especially if one hasn't read the book or seen the movie. The music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray can be formulaic in covering black musical genres such as gospel, blues, honky-tonk and ragtime. Moreover, the lyrics aren't always clearly enunciated, especially by the three Church Ladies (Kimberly Ann Harris, Virginia Ann Woodruff and Lynette Dupree), who serve as a kind of Greek chorus.
Her expressive face serves Jeannette Bayardelle well as she portrays Celie, who gives birth to her second child at age 14 after bering impregnated by her stepfather, Pa (Quentin Earl Darrington). He gets rid of the infants and gives her to a local man, Mister (Rufus Bonds Jr.), to take care of his children. Mister mistreats Celie, too. Pa and Mister also succeed in driving off Celie's beloved younger sister, Nettie (LaToya London). It isn't until she meets Mister's longtime love, singer Shug Avery (Michelle Williams), that Celie finally finds someone to treat her well and love her. Other principals are Stu James as Mister's enterprising son, Harpo, and Felicia P. Fields as the formidable Sofia, who becomes Harpo's wife.
Directed by Gary Griffin, the performances are commendable. Donald Byrd's athletic choreography is exciting. The sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Paul Tazewell, lighting by Brian MacDevitt and sound by Jon Weston serve the production well. Sheilah Walker is musical director.
Because the source material is so good, "The Color Purple" can hold its own as a musical, but one can't help thinking that it could do so much more with a better adaptation.